The Leftovers: “Guest”
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Carrie Coon (HBO)
Carrie Coon (HBO)

The Leftovers: “Guest”

“prophetic delusions”

“Guest” is simply stunning. Carrie Coon’s Nora Durst has long been one of the most interesting characters in The Leftovers—occupying a larger role in the season’s previous highlight, “Two Boats And A Helicopter,” but otherwise existing largely on the fringes as a kind of cautionary tale. The Leftovers is demonstrably stronger when it plunges into someone’s personal life and just follows them around for a few days in this post-apocalyptic landscape of loss and survival—those scenes of immersion are powerful, both recognizable and alien at the same time.

Every moment in this episode—like in “Two Boats And A Helicopter”—feels like crucial scene in a parable. Every sentence seems oddly important, from Nora’s casual conversation with Marcus when they first meet to the cutting disdain of Margery, the woman Nora thinks is impersonating her. Though to some degree the audience knows Nora, having watched her for a while, nothing that she does is predictable—more than once the story zigged when I expected it to zag. (I would have guessed, for example, that Nora would be sympathetic to Patrick, the What’s Next author she met in the bar, and more suspicious of Wayne and his followers. But the opposite was true. Admittedly, I also think she could not have accepted the latter had she not rejected the former.)

Looking back on the last few episodes, the ones that have stood out to me are the ones where transformation is indicated as something that is possible—hence “Two Boats” and tonight’s “Guest,” which both indicate sea changes for the protagonists, though in entirely different ways. In “Two Boats” Nora’s brother the Reverend Jamison is forced into a new way of thinking very much despite his own urges—it literally hits him in the face. Here in “Guest” it’s a little different (and more satisfying): Nora realizes something needs to change, and doesn’t quite know what it is. She trusts herself the way Matthew does: She’s not pressured into admitting she’s hallucinating or can’t remember what happened the night before, she knows there is an impersonator. But she also is willing to go into doors that are opened to her—to take up the offer of the boats and the helicopter, or at least to take up one of them.

The Leftovers has grappled with the idea of ambiguous loss for the past several episodes—in the broadest sense, as the world tries to recover from the events of October 14, and in the narrowest, as Chief Garvey tries to find a bagel that got stuck in the toaster. At first in this episode it seems like Nora is exploring yet another version of that: She’s stuck in the loop of refreshing the pain of her loss, hoping that her husband and daughters will come back. (The way this manifests in the episode is by buying groceries for her kids—sugary cereal, mostly, which loops back later in the episode.) But in the third act she pushes that aside, eschewing the narrative that The Leftovers has given us for a few episodes for something a little more complicated, a lot harder to achieve, and certainly something more satisfying to the viewer: closure. In the bar, drinking her dirty martini, contemplating her own reflection in the shattered mirror that not-her broke the night before, she meets Patrick, who wants to tell her that it’s going to be okay, and that ambiguous loss is hard to deal with. Nora just stares at him for a minute. And then pronounces it to be what I think we have all suspected it is: “Bullshit.”

It’s a pivotal moment for this season, which has up until now pushed back at the idea of moving on. In the aftermath of the disappearance practically everyone we’ve seen has been stuck in some kind of loop or another, and whether they’re smuggling a pregnant girl across the country or smoking cigarettes and wearing white, no one in this world is even remotely happy. “Bleak” is the most common adjective used to describe this show, and of course that makes sense—we haven’t lost 2 percent of our population, and our world is pretty bleak, so who’s to blame The Leftovers?

But up until now, it has been hard to parse what The Leftovers is trying to do by telling its story. In “Guest,” it’s found a raison d’etre: Showing its survivors not just coping but moving on. Most of the characters are stuck trying to explain what happened on that day, but Nora in “Guest” is able to let go of the questioning and instead embrace her life.

It’s fascinating that that would happen as the result of giving her pain to Wayne. Who is Wayne, and how is he capable of that? He’s been presented as both sinister and loving (which makes me think of Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God,” where God is both of those things) and his ability to make Nora happier has made me interested in his fate, whatever that is.

I’ve made it sound like “Guest” only succeeded thematically. That’s not actually the case, because “Guest” is also the best-structured episode The Leftovers has produced yet. The story moves through very different phases of being—first, Nora’s daily grind (with a gun!); then, a brief opportunity to shed her identity; then the anonymity catching up with her, and her resultant defiance; then, triumph, which ends up not meaning very much—which makes way for triumph of a deeper, different kind. It’s solidly built around acts, using shifts in the status quo to allow Nora’s character to develop and reveal itself to the viewer. It has some fantastic scoring, reminiscent of Philip Glass. The cold open is the strongest the show has ever done. There are no dream sequences, no fantasies, and only minimal flashbacks that snap in and out for fractions of a second. This is an episode that is otherwise literally just the story of one woman: Nora is in every single scene, and we see what she sees.

There’s also something vital and captivating in Nora’s concluding moments with Kevin that so much of the rest of this show has lacked, which is beyond just the romantic spark between them. It’s that someone in this show is finally looking to the future with hope—not looking to the past in despair. As Wayne says: We all deserve hope, and that goes for the audience, too. It’s hard to watch despair every week. I’m glad The Leftovers is open to showing us more than that.

Stray observations:

  • The reveal of the 121st question boggles me, in the best way possible. My guess was that it was the suicide question that opened up the episode; instead it’s “Do you believe the taken are in a better place?” A question that Nora’s respondents always said “yes” to. (Until the last moment, where her interviewee breaks down crying and says, “no.”) I get it, but I do not totally understand why that is the question that Nora got false positives for before she went to New York and saw Wayne. I think it’s supposed to be perplexing, and I like that. My theory is that part of Nora’s guilt and sense of loss is that she didn’t deserve to be taken—but maybe she was also holding on to the idea that the departures went somewhere better because that was how she kept the pain fresh in her mind.
  • “What happens when those conversations with God go wrong?”
  • The party scene was great, if only for this quote: “I try not to read anything that comes in a fucking tote.” It was believably loose and inconsequential, and Nora kissing the corpse was the first sign, for me, that she wasn’t exactly who I thought she was.
  • Do you think the security guards at the hotel let her keep her gun? How could they?
  • “Oh, fuck your daughter.” Nora unwittingly says what we all feel.
  • There seemed to be a semi-deliberate Alice In Wonderland reference to Nora’s story: In the elevator, Marcus says she can go out and slowly die, or “go down the rabbit hole.” The bizarre series of events in the hotel (where she is evicted, interrogated, and vindicated in quick succession) is so insane it is sort of like Alice’s dreamlike journey. And even the cracked mirror evokes Through The Looking Glass. The pills and booze might as well have had EAT ME or DRINK ME on them, and surely Wayne, Patrick, and Marcus could be the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, or the Mad Hatter? (The hotel security guards, obviously, are the Queen of Hearts’ guards.)
  • “I’m sorry. I was having a really hard time.” “You’re doing so much better now.”
  • Last week I made a flip remark about the way the show defined hate crimes that was not nearly well considered enough, considering the subject matter. I sincerely apologize for offending anyone, and I intend to be a lot more careful about how I discuss such sensitive topics in the future.

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